- Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland by Bridget Ford
In Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland, Bridget Ford explores what the "bonds of union" meant to nineteenth-century Americans. Whether used in formal speeches or in more informal ways, the phrase had a religious, familial, or political connotation. Ford argues that most understood the concept as a combination of these notions, and more importantly, the "bonds of union" helped bridge differences between white and black, Catholic and Protestant, and northern and southern Americans. This contributed to the abolition of slavery and the Union victory during the Civil War. Importantly, Ford insists that while these deeply held ideals of union ultimately triumphed, they did not increase the white population's receptivity toward African Americans as equals.
Ford focuses her attention on the Ohio River Valley borderlands of Cincinnati and Louisville. Despite the diversity between the region and people in these two cities, they were strongly linked by commerce, politics, and religion. Enough so, posits Ford, that the populations had "strong-enough bonds of union to weather" the violence wrought by antebellum reform, secession, and fratricidal conflict (xii). These contested yet resilient connections presented by Ford challenge the notion of the Ohio River as the overt demarcation line between the North and South. Instead of relying on traditional political and wartime rhetoric and policies, Ford interrogates the "realm of culture" to uncover "concrete action and real human relations" that "took place within, but also dramatically altered, a larger political context" (xiv). Specifically, she looks at the abstract bonds present in preaching styles, devotional literature, antislavery fiction and poetry, and historical writings. Her deft analysis of this evidence provides both an original and important contribution to our understanding of mid-nineteenth-century American culture and history.
The book is divided into three main parts: religion, race, and sectional divide. Many people in the two borderland urban centers remained steadfast in their focus on these challenging issues. The first three chapters examine the growth of and competition between the Protestant and Catholic Churches. Using missionary work, revivals, religious print culture, and church architecture, Ford shows how the two groups actually began to become more alike in many ways. Although they had some different objectives, black churches also played a role in the creation of prewar "bonds of union" in both cities.
The second section tackles race, freedom, and slavery within the context of national political and social change. Despite the severity of Ohio's Black Laws and the resolute commitment to slavery in Kentucky, black residents in both cities created independent institutions. In addition to churches, the rapidly growing black populations supported schools and social organizations as they fought for civil and political rights. The Ohio River provided a means for movement, escape, and economic opportunities [End Page 433] as enslaved and free African Americans intermingled. The borderland was also a dangerous place for free blacks, who faced violence from working-class whites, feared kidnapping and enslavement, and challenged threats of colonization. After the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, black leaders contemplated emigration, and although a significant number moved to Canada, most remained determined to stay and fight for their citizenship and rights. Others took advantage of the opportunities to benefit financially from service occupations that catered to the growing white middle class in both urban centers. Additionally, Ford offers a needed counter narrative that argues that a much more collaborative effort between black and white abolitionists existed. Although limited in success, they worked to help runaway slaves abolish slavery, and sought equal access to education and literacy. Through activism and literature, the shared desire for enlightenment became a strong bond of union.
The final section covers the growing sectional divisions within the country as they played out in the two cities bound by economic ties. Ford explores the political divide that grew as a result of the split within the Methodist and Baptist Churches...